As I stood on the bimah of Temple Emanu-El in New York City in April, I fidgeted with my tie, smiled my “rabbi smile,” and shook lots of hands. But inside, as I waited to get my honorary degree, I felt like an outsider and wondered if I should have come.
I had last stood in that spot 25 years ago when I was ordained a Reform rabbi. That day, my parents and siblings were there. My lover, Tim, was there; friends, too. I had spent the five years since being accepted into Hebrew Union College studying and fighting for the right to be ordained an openly gay rabbi, but as hands were laid upon me, declaring me part of a line stretching from Joshua until now, I felt as angry as I was proud. It was 1990, and outside the walls of that bejeweled synagogue, the AIDS epidemic was still raging: Many of my friends were dying, or dead, and my activist comrades in ACT UP were planning to storm the National Institutes of Health. At CBST, the gay and lesbian synagogue where we were members, the tidal waves of loss just would not stop. Before Kaddish, we dreaded the reading of the list those who had died, the explosion of wails and sobs at each name sending shards of grief like shrapnel into the congregation. Inside Emanu-El that day, it was as if none of that was happening. AIDS was only mentioned, if at all, during the mi she-berakh, as we were still arguing if people who were openly gay or lesbian could be ordained or have weddings in Reform temples.
After I was ordained, I found myself in self-imposed exile from the community I had trained to serve. In part, it was geographical: My partner and I moved to Vermont to escape the ghosts that haunted New York. In part, it was psychological: The rage and terror I had smiled through all those years would no longer be quiet. And in part, it was religious: The Jewish liturgy I loved had become a theological minefield, and Jewish rituals seemed at times hostile, honoring a God that was powerless and distant while so many were dying.
Standing on that bimah 25 years later, all this came flooding back, and I broke into sobs during the Shema. But there was a new sensation as well: return. Being around people I had spent so many years with engaged in Torah study, I could sense some part of me, long torn like one of those black ribbons at a funeral, surprisingly beginning to mend.
I had wanted to be a rabbi since the summer after 10th grade, when I had been ousted as drum major of the marching band of our small Southern town. The “band boosters,” I was told, had called a special meeting while I was home sick with mono (and without telling my feverishly “boosterish” parents) and decided that, as the band director charmingly told me, “We just aren’t comfortable with a Jew leading the band down Main Street.” It was a Friday, and after I made a very public rant about anti-Semitism at the pep rally, I quit the band. That summer, freed from marching camps and endless drills on hot asphalt, I attended the Georgia Governor’s Honors program in Chemistry; when our required vocational presentation was due at summer’s end, mine was “Rabbi in Space,” a campy send-up of Star Trek’s need for a rabbi. I spent the next year crushed out and studying with a handsome student rabbi in a small town in Georgia, an hour’s drive from home. I had a belated bar mitzvah. Several people said I should be a rabbi. I kvelled. By the time I graduated from college, I had been Hillel president for two years and was aiming for Hebrew Union College, the rabbinical seminary of the American Reform movement.
Alas, to the kids in my high school, where I was the only Jew, my religion seemed less interesting to them than my sexuality. I was gay and recognizably so. Only a year or so before “Rabbi in Space,” during our band’s Bicentennial Extravaganza, I, resplendent with a bad perm and sequined vest, had been lifted by several solid young women in heavy wool skirts up on their crossed fiberglass rifles, wrapped, as they were, in prism tape to catch the stadium lights. There, high above the spinning flags of the marching band, I emerged just in time to play the big piccolo solo for “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the grand finale. I could see people under the bleachers pointing and laughing at me and mouthing words like “queer.” I made out with my boyfriend on the band bus afterward. After marching season, a friend and I spent afternoons improving our rifle twirling skills, choreographing routines, and occasionally having awkward sex. By college I was aflame, wearing handkerchiefs of any color, oblivious to what they actually meant.
After college, I moved in with Tim, who had been my best friend in high school and who had stuck with me through the “perm years.” I moved in with him in Atlanta, worked at the Israeli Consulate as an information officer, and at night, we did the circuit of gay bars and drag shows growing in Atlanta at the time. We got word that my roommate from college had died of the new gay cancer. We marched in our first gay pride parade when many marchers still wore masks made from paper plates or bags. Tim converted before we went to Israel on Sherut La’am, a volunteer year in Israel, living in Jerusalem with a very gay roommate who used to cruise the local park at nights with giant gloves that from a distance made him look like a horny Mickey Mouse. The Israeli queens in the park called out to him: “G’veret!” “Girrrrl!”
It was while we were in Jerusalem that I applied to HUC. At the interview, they asked if there was anything more they should know about me; I told them. I was accepted. I believe I was the second openly gay man to be accepted, the first coming just the previous year. Tim came to Shabbat dinners and services at HUC and joined us on our Southern tiyyul. We held hands and sang Israeli folksongs and boisterously chanted the birkat hamazon.
Naively, it didn’t occur to me that despite being accepted, my ordination was not a given. Once we returned to New York to finish my studies, we found a Jewish community immersed in issues of “who’s a Jew” and a gay community literally fighting for its life and being largely ignored by that Jewish community.
In rabbinical school, my classmates were overwhelmingly supportive of ordination of gay men and lesbians, but the faculty was not as clear. Several of us founded an organization of LGBT students and their allies, called Hinenu (We Are Here), and we put flyers in mailboxes and elevators; the logo of an open door was drawn in the chunky pixels of those first Macs. Several students, particularly women, would only come to secret meetings; others including straight allies joined the open meetings, including a young straight ally and rabbinical student named Aaron.
My straight classmates and professors seemed much less engaged in the AIDS crisis that now defined much of my world. When I walked out the doors of HUC each day, I stepped through a portal into another world that was terrifying and, to me, much more real. At nights, I would leave class to go visit friends in the hospitals, or dying at home. I volunteered as a chaplain in a hospital in New York, but I had little to offer them. They were young, terrified, and angry; I was too. I began serving as rabbi for the Hebrew Association of the Deaf, a venerable organization founded of and by deaf Jews, leading services entirely in ASL. I joined ACT UP and went to long claustrophobic meetings and raucous protests all over New York City. Afterward, when I would get home from school and chaplaincy and protests, I would go to the bathroom to check myself for lesions.
At HUC, this was invisible. There we were arguing about whether it was a sin for a person who was truly bisexual, “50/50,” to be in a same-gendered relationships. One prominent faculty member was passionately against the acceptance of gay and lesbian rabbis and eventually refused to sign my ordination. Even among those in Hinenu, we did not discuss what we were going through outside school and congregations. To this day, I’m not sure why. It was in part the rushed meetings between classes and work, but it was more than that. I know I didn’t want even my fellow gay classmates to see how wrecked and on the edge I was. In crisis, it becomes crucial to hold it together.
Two days crystallize the dissonance of my life at the time. One was the first day I ran into Larry Kramer in Washington Square Park, where I was eating lunch. As the founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, he was a hero of mine—so I said hello. He asked me what I did and then yelled at me for being part of the problem. Fortunately, that wasn’t our last lunch there.
The second such day was near my ordination. The HUC Board of Trustees was coming into town for a meeting. Hinenu members secretly stuck flyers calling for ordination in all the prayer books in the chapel. I was assigned to put up flyers in the elevators, but by the time I’d ride up one elevator, the signs had been taken down in the other. I spent several hours in this particular game of cat and mouse but then had to go visit a deaf friend who was dying of AIDS. When I got to his house, he was so weak he could barely sign and was shivering uncontrollably. He begged me to lie on top of him, atop the stack of blankets already there, just so he could get warm. After about an hour just lying there with him, he calmed, and I left him for an ACT UP meeting. The official HUC response to the flyers was to ignore them.
Jewish ritual seemed incapable of addressing what I was experiencing as a gay man in the AIDS crisis. Or perhaps I was incapable of letting it.
I dearly loved my work with the deaf synagogue. Deaf people understood what it was to be on the margins, to long for inclusion in Jewish life but to be held at arm’s length for reasons beyond their control. They were elderly, so I never told them I was gay and they didn’t ask, but they included Tim in invitations. The amazing 90-year-old deaf man who taught me sign language had taught himself Jewish history, and how to read Hebrew, before teaching generations of deaf children about Judaism. He was also a gay man and highly respected. Doing ritual in ASL, with others who so clearly understood more deeply than I what it meant to be both inside and outside of our tradition, kept my spiritual pilot light on. I like to believe I helped keep theirs lit as well.
Still, Jewish ritual seemed incapable of addressing what I was experiencing as a gay man in the AIDS crisis. Or perhaps I was incapable of letting it. CBST offered community, but arguing about gender-neutral language for God seemed to miss the holocaust that was happening all around us. I started going to Radical Faerie gatherings out in the woods and screamed and cried with other gay men around enormous bonfires. At almost every gathering, word of another death would carry us into another ritual of angry grief. Those rituals kept my spirit alive during a very long plague-dark time. The particularity of being with other gay men and lesbians offered something at the time that the particularity of Judaism could not.
I was ordained. It turned out that a private memo from HUC’s then-president made clear the college would accept openly gay and lesbian students. Since the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinical conference, automatically ordained anyone who graduated from HUC, the fight was moot, so there I stood, on the bimah of Temple Emanu-El, 25 years ago, proud but withdrawing as hands were laid upon me.
After ordination, Tim and I moved to Kibbutz Lotan, where we were the first openly gay couple and became, once again, the center of debate about the place of queers in the Jewish world. We returned to New York. I continued my work with the deaf community but otherwise withdrew from institutional Jewish life. We moved to rural Vermont and built our house with our own hands while I worked at the local AIDS service organization and Tim opened a hair salon. The Judaism in my life moved to the table of our new home. “I didn’t move here for community,” I heard myself say more than once. I dabbled spiritually, going from yoga retreats to solstice rituals. I sojourned in India. I danced with witches. I read deeply in comparative religion. I helped start an intentional gay community. I gardened and ate organic. Mostly, though, I put my spiritual energy into teaching, first at the local community college, and then serving as a dean at Middlebury College. I was on the committee to hire the first Hillel rabbi there; I didn’t consider applying. I kept up with the Jewish world, reading the reports from the CCAR as the Reform Movement affirmed gay rabbis, gay marriage, and welcomed its gay members fully into congregational life. Still, what I felt was “good for them,” not “good for us.” I had become the wicked son of Passover, who excludes himself.
We still live in Vermont. l still teach at the community college. Two years ago, the deaf congregation closed after over a hundred years. Because of the rubella vaccine, there were many fewer young deaf Jews, and they mostly preferred to go where their friends and family go—to mainstream synagogues with ASL interpreters. That year, I was invited to give the Yom Kippur sermon at the local havurah and shortly after received a call from HUC to discuss whether I qualified for the honorary Doctor of Divinity that is conferred after 25 years of rabbinic service. On the outside, I had been a rabbi with the deaf for over 25 years, taught Hebrew Bible, Hebrew literature, and comparative religion at college—but inside, on a spiritual level, I was less certain. Writing to HUC about why I had made the choices I had was the first time I had ever really opened up about those years, the first time in decades I had really let myself relive them.
I had looked back on those years as a time of tremendous personal strength and clarity; I had become fierce. I had become an activist. I now had to admit that they were also years of trauma and while one part of me had risen up, another had retreated. Like so many gay men of my age, I had only recently begun to talk openly again about those years. After I almost passed out from hyperventilating at a college production of Angels in America, I knew something was up, and I realized I never talked about those years with my gay friends. It was an odd silence with an eerie resonance to Jewish experience. Some losses can’t be mourned or made sense of, but there is power in perseverance. It can be hard to look honestly at how much can be lost in becoming fierce.
As I wrote to HUC, I understood why I had stepped away, but it was much less clear why I had stayed away. It is one thing, it seems to me, to choose one’s allies during a crisis, to decide whom to hold close and with whom to shake hands politely, but after the crisis had subsided, when I was back on my feet, I continued to hoard my injuries. Holding them helped me feel justified, even sanctimonious, in my choices. How many of the world’s enduring conflicts boil down to hoarding injuries, guarding them like treasures to make sense of our loss in life? And if I’m honest, it was not just trauma that got in my way; it was also stubborn petulance. At some bratty level, I had blamed my friends in rabbinical school for not knowing what I had been going through all those years ago, but clearly they had known, in their way, or had learned, and would have been there at the time if I had asked them to be. I did not ask. Instead, I pouted for 25 years like Jonah when his vine wilts. While the rest of the liberal Jewish world had moved on, ordaining gay rabbis, marrying same-sex couples, and marching for gay rights, I had been busy pouting in exile.
When I arrived in New York to receive the degree, I met my classmates from school for the first time since ordination. I was moved to see people who had been dear friends, whose weddings I had danced at only to then disappear. “Look who’s here!” they said. “You can get through this,” I said to myself. We were invited to sit in a circle on the bimah, and after a brief Talmud study, the new president of HUC, Dr. Aaron Panken—the same Aaron who had supported us at Hinenu decades earlier—asked us to share. Several of us who had been part of the short-lived Hinenu sat in that circle, and each one shared, often in tears, the heartbreak of those years. Yet I also could not help but notice that one of those speaking was now a dean at HUC, having founded a model graduate program for Jewish pastoral counseling. Another classmate who wasn’t there was now the dean of the New York campus. When it was my turn, I shared what I’ve shared here, or some version of it, but just sitting in that circle and hearing others express so much of what I had felt shifted something in the tectonics of my inner world. Something slipped, and what had been submerged rose up, and an invisible wall I had erected dissolved.
It is notoriously difficult to describe spiritual experiences without making them sound cloying and clichéd; they are ineffable. I could say my Jewish soul blossomed again after decades of dormancy. I could say I felt the rush of God’s presence. The truth is much less dramatic. I simply felt my full Jewish self again. One minute I was looking for the door, and the next it was if I had never left, as if this circle of rabbis had casually gone to my soul’s basement and flipped that circuit breaker back to “on.” My smile was genuine. My joy was palpable. It was the smile and joy of return.
David Edleson is a Reform rabbi who teaches ethics, religion, and writing at the Community College of Vermont.